(What follows will be explored in my book, in chapter VII, as the outline currently stands.)
Yesterday I impulsively — after a thoughtful e-mail from a friend — raised a big question on Twitter:
Key question for the future of classical music. Is the music itself a problem, or only the way we present it?
Plus a followup:
Two problems with
the music. Too much of it comes from the past. And our performance
style is more constricted than it used to be.
So here we see the virtues and limitations of Twitter. I’d “mindcasted” a thought that a lot of people picked up on. I got 18 responses, more than I usually get. They ranged from this:
constricted? As someone who has been through the puppy mill they call classical music training, i’d say that’s an understatement. (from @colettecello)
surely that’s not a serious question?! The music itself is, of course, perfection.(from @JAMES_RHODES)
But of course a tweet doesn’t give enough room for subtleties. So — since this seems to be such a pregnant question for so many people — let me go a little deeper.
Of course the music itself — the actual compositions — can’t be a problem. The classical repertoire is a wildly mixed bag, as we should recognize, ranging from the heights of art to happy entertainment, but that’s what all kinds of art have been. The classical repertoire stands firm through history, however we choose to use it.
But — unlike, let’s say — a painting, classical pieces need to be performed. So there’s always an element of presentation involved. The question I asked, therefore, ought to be reframed. Maybe like this. Is the problem, right now, only the external ways we present the music? By which I mean concert hall formality, and the like. Can we, in other words, improve things simply by changing the external presentation, while we play the music exactly as we currently do? (Which means not just how we play the repertoire, but what repertoire we choose to play.)
Or do we need to change the way we play the music, too?
I think we do. In two ways, as I said in my tweet. We need to stop losing ourselves in the culture of the past. Doing that can be fascinating, maybe, for us, inside the classical music bubble, but it’s not so compelling to the outside world. Name another art that’s so fixated on the past. As I and others have pointed out, many times, art museums are way ahead of us. Their shows of contemporary art are often their most distinguished — and popular — attractions.
And we can play the music much more freely. Which might mean radical freedom, by present standards. But it might simply mean playing more like Artur Rubinstein and other great classical artists of a couple of generations ago, whose performances — which can be wonderfully personal, and even populist, while still being stylistically correct — often astound the students I currently teach.
Big questions. I hope i’ve defined them more clearly.